Reacting to cancer
When people receive a cancer diagnosis, they react in a number of different ways. Some panic or become angry; others get depressed. Online cancer forums contain many threads such as “I Can’t Stop Crying” and “Feeling So Depressed.” When I read these headings I momentarily wonder whether I’m in complete denial about my own cancer. Should I be more like them? Should I be miserable instead of enjoying each day?
But each cancer patient negotiates the terrain in his or her own way. Some are plunged into it kicking and screaming; others remain focused and calm. I am in the latter camp; I’m even relatively cheerful. This is because of what I’ve learned from friends who had cancer.
My two best friends from college both died of lung cancer. One of them shut herself off from others after her diagnosis, refusing to answer messages from loving friends who wanted to help. The other friend reached out to everyone she knew, seeking affection and support. The one who shut herself off died very quickly; but the one who reached out to others won a remission of more than a year despite the odds being 99% against her. Watching the way they lived and died was a powerful lesson to me, as was the courageous death of S.G., who when told that he had pancreatic cancer refused to undergo treatment. He told everyone “I’m 70, and I’ve had a good life. I’m ready to go.” He planned his own Celebration of Life while still alive, inviting fellow musicians and poets to share the stage with him, and afterwards he spent his remaining months taking a first-time-ever trip to Paris with his daughter, listening to jazz, teaching himself calculus, playing the flute and reading Buddhist sutras.
I learned a lot from these three friends who died. We all have the power to choose how we respond to the news that we are going to die. I approach the problem from a practical viewpoint: what response will do me the least harm and the most good? If I wallow in fear, rage or depression, that would be an obvious harm, not just to me but to all my family and friends. But if I maintain good spirits and courage, that boosts me upward, along with everyone else. The choice therefore becomes a simple one.
If we’re open to the idea, cancer can teach us valuable lessons. Because I know that my time on earth is finite, I now enjoy every day much more than I did a year ago—and believe me, my quality of life was pretty darned good twelve months ago. In some strange way my overall happiness factor has actually increased due to (or despite) the cancer. I don’t waste time playing computer solitaire the way I used to; I’m now focused on making the most of my remaining hours, and I’m happier as a result.
But the most important thing that cancer has taught me is that I’m an incredibly lucky human being. People might say, “How on earth can you think you’re lucky when you have cancer?!?” But it’s true nonetheless. To my mind it’s not so bad to bow out at a high point. If this cancer had happened to me years ago, I might be posting forum threads like “I Can’t Stop Crying” or “Feeling So Depressed.” But the past eleven years have been the happiest of my life. I still hold the best job I’ve ever had (homes journalist and photographer). I achieved my childhood dream of becoming a writer and an author! I’ve surmounted the inadequacies and fears that I suffered while young, and learned to enjoy life instead of wallowing around in self-doubt. I have a loving and supportive family and dear friends who mean the world to me. I have the best spouse and son that a person could hope for. I have absolutely nothing to complain about, for I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in my life.
As I told Dann Denny when he interviewed me for a feature in the Herald-Times, “Life has been a wonderful party, but even the best party must come to an end. It’s my intention to depart the party graciously when my time comes, with heartfelt thanks for being allowed to participate.”